My Day With Fiddy

I ran the Vermont 50 this past week, an ultra marathon, a trail run with an elevation gain of 8900 vertical feet, 50 miles long.

It was epic. Even as I write this I am fairly certain that my quadriceps have been beaten with railroad ties.

Years ago, as we set out on our first climb of the Grand Teton, my friend Rachelle stood at the base, looked up and said, “Well this doesn’t look very probable.”

I had the same thought at the start of the Vermont 50.

We had read lots of books and articles. We had trained for more than 16 weeks. But as I stood in the pre-dawn light waiting for the gun, all I could think was: Fiddy miles is a long way to go.

Eleven hours and ten minutes later, I crossed the finish line. I came away with lots of lessons. Here are three.

Ya Gotta Chunk It Down

I remember the elation I felt graduating from law school. And then the despair of realizing that the bar exam was a mere two months away. I had to review, condense, consolidate and assimilate three years of course work in just 8 weeks.

Every big expedition or project or goal since then has required the same approach: break it down into small manageable steps. Map it, lay it out, schedule it, and then go at it one step at a time.

Training for the ultra – one twelve hour span of time -required months and months of preparation. Running, fitness, diet, strength training.

Every day was planned. How many miles we would run. What we would eat. When we would go to the gym. Our travel, our commitments, all revolved around our training schedule.

Piece by piece we built the fitness. And when I stood at the line, I knew that I’d have to run the race in the same way. Biting off the entire thing would freak me out. But when I thought about it in three mile segments or five mile segments, it became imaginable.

Whether it’s a diet, an exercise program, a creative project, or a job, when the task is monumental, you need to break it down into small manageable steps. Map them out, write them down. Go at them one small step at a time.

Change Is The Only Constant

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” The Greeks have no corner on this point of view. The Buddhists say it too.

And it’s true. Nothing stays the same. Everything is in flux.  All the time.

During the training, there were good days and bad days. There were days of pure elation. And days of utter despair.

Ofttimes without any rhyme or reason.

We could have a day of pure flow; and the very next day, it might feel as if our legs had turned to rebar. On long runs, five joyful miles could turn into ten of pure agony; and then back again.

We learned that every training day was different. We learned not to be driven by how we felt because of how transitory feeling are. And that it was ok.

On ultra day, it was the same. There were moments of great happiness and joy. At times our bodies seemed like they could fly. We would talk and laugh and enjoy the beauty of the land. And then, in an instant, discomfort, pain, exhaustion, distress and tears.

Knowing that it will all change, accepting the change, being with the change,  and ultimately riding the change: these were some of the biggest challenges we faced.

They are some of life’s biggest challenges as well.

When You Can’t Go Further You Can

It took my breath away when she told me: Ann was dropping out of the race. Her pace had been slipping. She wasn’t going to make the cut off times. She wanted me to keep going.

This was a finish line we were supposed to cross together. We had trained together. And planned together. I didn’t know how I would go on without her.

And I was completely spent. My feet were torn up. My legs ached. My spirit was in the toilet.

I taped my feet and changed my shoes and lumbered off into the woods with the tears streaming down my face. Eighteen miles to go.

I kept up the self talk: “You’ve done 18 before.” “In four hours, you’ll be sipping a beer.” “Your feet will heal.” “The pain will go away.” “You can do this.” “Just make it to the next aid station.” “Just one more mile.”

Then just one more step, and one more, and another after that. And then in the distance, I could hear the music playing: the finish line. The tears came fresh and fast, now because I knew that I could do it, that somehow I had dug deep enough, and pulled it off.

We have such a small taste of what we are capable of as human beings. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. We can taste it in our toughest moments. Yet, for the most part, our true strength remains a shadow. When all seems lost, when we’re sure we can’t do more, when we’re convinced we can’t go further, we usually can.

Henry Ford said “Whether you think you can or can’t…you are right.” You might as well think you can.

What I Know From Fiddy

Relentless Forward Progress was our ultra training manual.

Fiddy whispered: Be relentless.

Reality Check

It used to be that work was what happened to you when you were busy making other plans.

Outside Magazine, September 2011

Whenever I return from an adventure, he invariably asks the question that I find so troubling.

“Back to reality, I guess, huh?”

I suspect that my father’s perspective is borne of a traditional post-industrial world view: you go to work, you labor long and hard in the factory, and, for a few precious days or weeks each year, you “get away from it all.”  Life and work: forever divorced from one another.  Reality. And unreality?

It shouldn’t be that way.

Reality is not a prison sentence. It is not something we subsist in – and drop out of from time to time.

Reality is what is: This precious moment. Reality encompasses the entirety of our being.  It is our life in each and every instant:  each joy, each hardship, each challenge; the cacophony of our lives; and the splendor. There is nothing “else.”

To live a life divided between “realty” and

  • Relationship
  • Fun
  • Vacation
  • Pleasure
  • Fulfillment

is to deny the integrity – the wholeness – of who we are.

Our lives are lived out fully in the here and now. To live contingently – for some future moment, for some potential happiness – is to deny the beauty, the richness, the vastness of what exists within our grasp.

Confucius wrote, “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

My mentor, the late great adventure photographer Galen Rowell, in reflecting upon his life, said, “Most important of all, I happened upon a special relationship between myself, my career and my subject matter. I entered into a world with no firm boundaries between working, playing and living.”

A tapestry well woven.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t “get away from it all” now and then.  I’m a big fan of going “off the grid.”  That time allows us to assess what’s working in our lives. And what’s not.

Sometimes we feel depleted, trapped, hopeless.  Sometimes we believe that, if we can only get to some other place, things will be better.  When we feel this way, something needs to change.

If we are living contingently – for another time – for a different reality – it means that we don’t have our lives the way we want them, the way they need to be… yet.

Reality requires that we tinker, to get it “right.” We need to make small changes; and sometimes big ones. Course corrections to:

  • Health and fitness
  • Finances
  • Jobs
  • Where we live
  • Relationships

Our highest aspiration is toward a reality that is filled with freedom and fulfillment; a reality that resonates with peace and joy. A reality that is whole. (We must not “settle” for a reality that is less than whole.)

What if we didn’t feel stretched and torn and fragmented?

What if we found satisfaction and meaning in every one of our days?

What if reality were fun?

What if Mondays were as great as Fridays?

We are the designers, the co-creators of our lives.

We get to choose our reality.

Choose a good one.


Journeys on the Edge: Living a Life That Matters

Available for pre-order soon at

Go To The Well

When this blog posts, I will be at the well.

For me, it’s a little place in West Cork perched on a hill overlooking the North Atlantic.  There is no TV, no Internet, no cell phone. There is the sound of the sea, and the wind in the trees. Nothing else.

It is the place I go – not often enough – to rest and rejuvenate; to re-create.

All of us have these places – maybe far away – maybe close at hand – always too seldom visited – where we can refresh our spirits.

  • a quiet litttle corner in the local library
  • the mountain bike trail just outside of town
  • a little church on Sunday mornings
  • the coffee shop in the village an hour’s drive from here
  • the beach side cottage; that little place in the mountains

We avoid these places because

  • it fells unproductive
  • there’s too much to do
  • we don’t have the time right now
  • we haven’t done enough to give ourselves a break
  • tomorrow will work better than today

And tomorrow stretches into next month. Into not at all.

When I came to the well this time ’round, I slept for two days – a sure sign I had been away too long.  And now I sit and soak in the silence –  and read and write and run  and rest. And yes, still battle the demons within myself: am I wasting time?

A dear friend of mine confessed to me recently that he hadn’t gone to his well in quite awhile because he hadn’t “earned it” – he hadn’t done enough yet to justify going there.

Here’s the paradox of the well: It is the place – the Source – from which we draw our strength, not a just reward.

There is a truism in mountaineering: hydrate or die.

Go to the well. Go there today.

Hangman’s Noose

Life is to be lived. No excuses. No reservations. No holding back.

Steve Goodier

“How ya doin’?” I asked.

“Hangin’ in there,” Rick replied.

We were lifting at the gym.  Rick had just arrived.

“A lot goin’ on,” he explained. “Busy, busy, busy. But, not bad, I guess.”

Not good I think.

“Hangin’ in there” is not enough.

Life is not an endurance event. Getting by is not a win. If all you’re doing is “hangin’ in there,” something is amiss.

Here are my other favorite responses to the “how are you” question:

  • Not bad
  • OK
  • Shitty
  • Pretty good for an ol’ guy
  • Busy
  • Same day different shit

And the best of all:

  • Woke up on the right side of the dirt

Now, people, this is all there is. These days of our lives are all we have. The sands run through the glass pretty fast.

All of us go through difficult times:  The loss of a loved one, a debilitating illness, unemployment, divorce, interpersonal conflict. Times when all we can do is hang in there, claw through our days, and hold on tenuously as best we can. And sometimes these events can stretch for months or years at a time.

I know. I have walked through some of those dark valleys.

But, if that’s how life is all the time – an epic, arduous grind, one day collapsing into another – then something needs to be fixed. That’s not the way life should be.

Joy is our birthright.

Blaise Pascal argued that every person, without exception, is a seeker of happiness. Aristotle believed happiness to be the summum bonum, the highest good.

The Dalai Lama writes, “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.”

Indeed, happiness is the key to our success. The paradigm of old held that if you worked long and hard, had a great job, amassed a lot of money and things, then you would be happy. The research is now clear that the old paradigm had it completely backwards. “Happiness fuels success, not the other way around,” writes Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage.  “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

So “hangin’ in there” just won’t cut it.

If you’re feeling that you’re just getting by,

  • Identify the biggest drag on your spirit; see if you can change or eliminate what’s bringing you down.
  • Apply the 80/20 rule; focus on the 20% of activities that bring 80% of your happiness; get rid of the 20% of activities that bring 80% of the headaches.
  • Check your boundaries; see if you’re getting the time and space you need to nurture your soul.
  • Catch up on some sleep; fatigue will wear you down.
  • Say no more often; make a “stop doing” list and follow it religiously.
  • Take some time away; if you can’t take a week or a day, take an hour at Starbucks by yourself.
  • Go “off the grid” for a few hours; turn off the electronics; eliminate the inputs; silence renews the spirit.
  • Consider the help of a counseling professional; none of us can go it alone.

None of us can be happy all the time. But we give no greater gift to the world than to live our lives with joy.

Coming soon!

The Secret Behind The Secret

Whatever you can do or dream, begin it.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Missing Secret

I have a secret. It’s the secret behind The Secret. It’s the secret to all success. Irene whispered it to me on a rainy hillside. Do you want to hear it?

You know The Secret: that Law of Attraction stuff. What you think about expands. What you focus on materializes. What you visualize, you attract into your life.

I’m a big fan of the Law of Attraction. I use it all the time. But I think the purveyors of The Secret leave out a major component of the formula and do a huge disservice to those well-intentioned folks who can’t understand why their lives don’t change, even with all the good that they imagine will unfold.

Those folks say the Law of Attraction doesn’t work. They visualize and visualize and nothing comes to pass.

It’s because they don’t know the secret behind The Secret.

I do. I know the real secret. And I will tell it to you.

Visualization Is Not Enough

Visualization is important. But something more is required.

It’s called action. Action is the secret behind The Secret.

We cannot hit a target we cannot see.  So envisioning what we want to have, where we want to go, who we want to be, are essential components of success. We need a clear picture of our goals if we are going to have any prospect whatsoever of attaining them.

But visualizing is not enough.

Once we know what we want, we need to move.  We need to take action. Tony Robbins would say, “massive action.”

I was reminded of this a few days ago as we completed our first ultra-marathon in tropical storm Irene. For months, we’d been visualizing the day we would cross the finish line. But as important – perhaps more important – we’d been getting out the door. Running. Following a specific plan of action. Incremental steps. Day in and day out.

Irene – they called her Irene – pummeled the hillside on the day of our race with wind and torrential rain.  She taunted us. We laughed and ran across the meadow.

We had trained in wind. We had trained in rain.

It didn’t matter.

The finish line was firmly planted in our minds. But we were there, together with Irene, because we had done the work.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.”

Surely there are times for planning. But it is so easy for all of us to get lost in the planning and never start out.

Start out. Even if you can’t see the whole way. Take the first step. And then the next. You’ll be amazed at the progress you will make.

Emerson said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” It most certainly does. But it doesn’t happen by itself.

Life Is An Action Sport

Life is an action sport. Participation is required.

The title of our ultra-marathon training guide is: Relentless Forward Progress.

It’s about life.

It’s the real secret.